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Pushing for rational risk assessment: ‘Eating is risky…but we don’t stop eating’

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 08-Nov-2012

Rational risk assessment: ‘Eating is risky…but we don’t stop eating’

Policy makers, MEPs, member states, and individuals are often poor at assessing food-related risks – and researchers need to do a better job of communicating the evidence, according to chief scientific adviser of the European Commission, Professor Anne Glover.

Speaking at the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) tenth anniversary conference in Parma this week, Glover said: “Eating is risky. What do we do about that?”

Generally people understand the benefits that eating confers – from simply keeping us alive, to the pleasure we derive from it in social situations – and that these benefits outweigh the potential outcomes of not eating, so we do not stop eating despite threat of foodborne illness, or other concerns like allergic or diabetic shock, or choking.

“What we do in a modern society is we try to understand risk and do what we can to mitigate it,” she said.

The case of GMOs

However, Glover said that decision-makers are not always rational in risk assessment. As an example, she pointed to the disparity among European Union member states when it comes to assessing the risk of genetically modified (GM) crops following EFSA scientific opinions.

“The evidence is the same for each member state, but each member state votes differently,” she said, highlighting Sweden’s near 100% record of voting for approvals of GMOs, contrasted with Austria and Luxembourg, which both have a 100% record of voting against GMO approval.

“One of the things I want to achieve is a more rational approach to evidence. I want our colleagues in Austria to realise that the evidence we have arrived at is sound.

“…I need them to say that the evidence is sound but to say that they object to GMOs on other grounds,” she said.

Glover also called for researchers to communicate better, particularly with policy makers. Of the 754 members of the European Parliament, only six are scientists, she said, making communication of scientific opinions particularly challenging.

“If we don’t do that there are plenty of others who will fill that gap and what they say may be nonsense,” she said.

Glover has less than two years left in her position, but during that time she says intends to continue to push for better communication and change among MEPs on the interpretation of scientific evidence.

“The pushing will be uncomfortable for everyone,” she said.

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